More than 2500 University men and women served overseas during the Great War. This Sunday 11 November, as we mark 100 years since the Armistice, we reflect on two people who returned to contribute their expertise to post war Australia.
At the time war was declared in 1914, Dr Elsie Dalyell (1881-1948) was in London on a coveted Beit Fellowship at the Lister Institute. She volunteered for service as a doctor for the Royal Army Medical Corps, but was rejected on the grounds she was a woman.
Undefeated, and with the assistance of women’s networks committed to contributing expertise to the war effort, she volunteered with the Serbian Relief Fund and soon found herself in Skopje, Macedonia, with Lady Wimborne’s unit tending the sick during the typhus epidemic and looking for a cure in a makeshift laboratory. Subsequently, she served on the Western Front in an all-female medical unit of the Scottish Women’s Hospital.
In late 1916 she finally joined the Royal Army Medical Corps, after official army policy had allowed women doctors, though not on the same terms or pay as male doctors. After the Armistice, she continued to serve with the RAMC in Turkey and Greece where fighting continued. Her war service was honoured in 1919 with the award of the Order of the British Empire.
She returned to Australia in 1923 as an internationally-renowned pathologist. Her research on battlefields included furthering knowledge about typhus, tetanus and gas gangrene and contributing to groundbreaking postwar study on the debilitating childhood disease, rickets.
I have been here for about four months (we left London on Feb 9th) and I brought a small laboratory equipment with me. Typhus was raging when we came out and I was speedily at work here. This is a fever hospital – has been adapted from a Serbian hospital (incredibly filthy) and an unfinished building which was meant for barracks. Lady Paget came here first. With four people from her unit and the five did herculean work until four of them contracted typhus.
We have had 500 beds all occupied but the numbers are diminishing in the last few days and we have less typhus now but we have to arrange to take 300 cases of other fevers from the Civil hospital which is to become a surgical base.
The work has been tremendous but I have enjoyed myself well, and have found it full of interest. My appointment was made as bacteriologist and my laboratory has been equipped accordingly but as there were only two of us I have been doing all sorts of varied work as well.
William Atkinson (1895-1977) was noted as an instructor in agriculture at the Hawkesbury Agricultural College on his enlistment papers in 1917.
Interestingly, he had been given exemption from enlisting in October 1916 as the remaining son of a family whose other sons were already serving in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF). He served as a private on the western front in France for close to a year until mid 1918.
William was given the opportunity to increase his knowledge of agriculture, and joined other agriculturalists on a study tour of the dairy industry in Denmark.
After the war William had a long and successful career in the public service as an expert in the dairy industry. In 1927 he became an Agricultural Officer and then went on to serve as Senior Dairy Produce Inspector (Exports) in Brisbane until he retired in 1960.
Some time before the war he had worked in the University library and developed a friendship with the librarian to whom he sent this postcard.
Dear Mr Brereton
The Australian government have included me in the party of 27 AIF Agriculturists who have just completed a trip through Denmark of one month. This is the last place we visit before again returning to Copenhagen. Leaving for Hull on the 15th list. We have seen here the method of production of butter and bacon the staple products of the country and am convinced Australia is the place for me. We are not behind the times and am sure it won’t be long before we hold a leading position in the dairy produce markets of the world. Kind remembrances to Mrs Brereton, the kiddies and yourself.
Peace allowed for educational opportunities to open up for some Australians who needed to wait, sometimes for years, for transport home. Such activities would keep the men occupied during their wait and prove advantageous to the development of Australia once the troops returned.
In 2014 the University of Sydney launched the online biographical website, Beyond 1914: The University of Sydney and the Great War as a way for people to research its First World War collections.
The project digitised individual entries in the 1939 University of Sydney Book of Remembrance along with an accompanying collection of about 150 boxes of century-old papers, diaries, letters, memorabilia and photographs, a valuable collection held in the University Archives.
The website features insights into the lives of more than 2500 University men and women before, during and after the war.
This initiative has been funded by the University of Sydney with generous assistance from the Chancellor’s Committee and the residential colleges of St Andrew’s and St John’s and the Women’s College.